Port of Edmonds cleans up soil

EDMONDS – Workers are finishing digging out petroleum-contaminated soil at Harbor Square.

Michael O’Leary / The Herald

The Port of Edmonds is excavating petroleum-contaminated soil at Harbor Square in Edmonds. The port has sued Unocal, claiming it caused the contamination.

But they won’t get all of what’s there, yet.

Excavation, which began in September, has yielded 5,000 tons of dirty dirt, said Martin Powers, who is managing the project for Landau Associates of Edmonds. Landau is doing the work for the Port of Edmonds, which owns the property.

Much of the material is a black, sticky glob, Powers said.

The contaminant’s presence has been known since the late 1980s, shortly after Harbor Square signed its lease with the port. But the state required no cleanup until 2001, after a small amount of oily material leaked through a storm drain into Edmonds Marsh, located between Harbor Square and the nearby Unocal oil company property.

Unocal owned the Harbor Square property from 1920 to 1978. Much of that time, according to Unocal, the property was leased to other companies that used the site for oil and gas storage and distribution, small-scale asphalt manufacturing, rail car cleaning and heavy-equipment storage.

Last year, Harbor Square sued the port over the issue, and the port countersued against Harbor Square and Unocal. The case will not go to trial until next December.

In its lawsuit against the port, Harbor Square is asking for an unspecified amount of damages.

“It causes us problems in trying to rent property,” Harbor Square owner-operator Dick Beselin said of the contamination. “We’re unable to rent it, unable to develop it, unable to do anything with it, really.”

Shortly after the Department of Ecology order in 2001, a crack in the storm drain was repaired and an area around the leak excavated, port director Chris Keuss said. The larger excavation project began after three years of planning, Keuss added.

The contaminants are believed to extend beneath the buildings of Harbor Square, which contains a health club, a restaurant, offices and service-type businesses between 120 and 180 Dayton Street.

The area excavated, as deep as 7 feet, is located mostly between the Harbor Square buildings and the railroad tracks in the northwestern portion of the property. It extended underneath a public walkway that leads to a viewing area for the marsh, a major wintering spot for migratory birds. The walkway is expected to reopen this week after an extended closure, Powers said.

The work kicked up a smell that caused at least one Harbor Square business owner to order air purifiers for her office.

“It sort of gave us a headache,” said Patty Voros, owner of Compact Filing Solutions, a document archiving business.

The excavated areas are being filled with clean dirt.

The next phase of the cleanup plan involves digging around and underneath the buildings, Keuss said. He said that won’t be done until Harbor Square embarks on its redevelopment plan, which involves tearing down buildings and constructing taller ones to take advantage of views of Puget Sound.

But that won’t happen at least until the lawsuits are settled, and maybe not even then, Beselin said. “There’s so much contamination now, we don’t know if it’s even feasible to do it.”

In the port’s countersuit, it points to Unocal, saying none of its own operations could have made the mess.

“We found all kinds of stuff,” Port Commissioner Bruce Faires said of the contamination. “We certainly didn’t cause any of that.”

Unocal responds that lessees ran the activities there.

“That’s always been a separate operation up there,” said Mark Brearley, senior geologist for Unocal.

The port also claims in its countersuit that Unocal is responsible for a smaller amount of contamination at one of its dry-boat storage units. The parcel sits across the railroad tracks from the former Unocal terminal, which awaits cleanup.

Unocal’s tests have shown no contamination is moving off its property, Brearley said.

“I’m not sure what it is,” Brearley said of the contaminated dirt at the port storage facility. “All I know is we’re certain it’s not coming from our property there.”

Reporter Bill Sheets: 425-339-3439 or sheets@heraldnet.com.

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